The particle trajectories of drying droplets, with red arrows showing the trajectory end. Image: Tawfique Hasan.
The particle trajectories of drying droplets, with red arrows showing the trajectory end. Image: Tawfique Hasan.

Have you ever spilled your coffee on your desk? You may then have observed one of the most puzzling phenomena of fluid mechanics – the coffee ring effect. This effect has hindered the industrial deployment of functional inks containing graphene, 2D materials and nanoparticles, because it makes printed electronic devices created with these inks behave irregularly.

Now, after studying this process for years, a team of researchers has created a new family of inks that overcomes this problem, allowing the fabrication of new electronics such as sensors, light detectors, batteries and solar cells.

Coffee rings form because the liquid evaporates quicker at the edges, causing an accumulation of solid particles that results in the characteristic dark ring. Inks behave like coffee – particles in the ink accumulate around the edges to create irregular shapes and uneven surfaces, especially when printing on hard surfaces like silicon wafers or plastics.

Researchers led by Tawfique Hasan from the Cambridge Graphene Centre at the University of Cambridge in the UK studied the physics of ink droplets by utilizing particle tracking in high-speed micro-photography, fluid mechanics and different combinations of solvents.

This led them to a potential solution: alcohol, specifically a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and 2-butanol. This mixture causes the particles to distribute evenly across the droplet, generating shapes with uniform thickness and properties. The researchers report their findings in a paper in Science Advances.

"The natural form of ink droplets is spherical – however, because of their composition, our ink droplets adopt pancake shapes," said Hasan.

While drying, the new ink droplets deform smoothly across the surface, spreading particles consistently. Using this universal formulation, manufacturers could adopt inkjet printing as a cheap, easy-to-access strategy for fabricating electronic devices and sensors. The new inks also avoid the use of polymers or surfactants – commercial additives used to tackle the coffee ring effect, but which at the same time thwart the electronic properties of graphene and other 2D materials.

Most importantly, the new methodology is reproducible and scalable – the researchers managed to print 4500 nearly identical devices on a silicon wafer and plastic substrate. In particular, they printed gas sensors and photodetectors, which both displayed very little variations in performance. Previously, printing a few hundred such devices was considered a success, even if they showed uneven behaviour.

"Understanding this fundamental behaviour of ink droplets has allowed us to find this ideal solution for inkjet printing all kinds of two-dimensional crystals," said first author Guohua Hu, also from the Cambridge Graphene Centre. "Our formulation can be easily scaled up to print new electronic devices on silicon wafers or plastics, and even in spray painting and wearables, already matching or exceeding the manufacturability requirements for printed devices."

Beyond graphene, the team has also optimized over a dozen ink formulations containing different materials. Some of them are 2D 'cousins' of graphene, such as black phosphorus and boron nitride, others are more complex structures like heterostructures – 'sandwiches' of different 2D materials – and nanostructured materials.

The researchers say their ink formulations can also print pure nanoparticles and organic molecules. This wide variety of materials could boost the manufacturing of electronic and photonic devices, as well as more efficient catalysts, solar cells, batteries and functional coatings.

The team expects to see industrial applications of this technology very soon. Their first proofs of concept – printed sensors and photodetectors – have shown promising results in terms of sensitivity and consistency, exceeding the usual industry requirements. This should attract investors interested in printed and flexible electronics.

"Our technology could speed up the adoption of inexpensive, low-power, ultra-connected sensors for the internet of things," said Hasan. "The dream of smart cities will come true."

This story is adapted from material from the University of Cambridge, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.